Marine Mammals in Captivity

A beluga whale was one of the first marine mammals displayed to the public. Held at the Boston Aquarial and Zoological Gardens under the care of the famed seal trainer James Cutting, the whale was to be trained but Cutting decided that performing animals was not what he wanted at the gardens. He was publically congratulated as a result by eminent scientist Louis Agassiz for "his understanding that the performances formerly carried on in it, from which nothing could be learned, was at last to be stopped".

Believe it or not, this took place in 1861, 150 years ago! That controversy existed over the welfare of marine mammals so long ago is surprising, especially when in the present day we find the debate about the value and methods of displaying captive marine mammals as alive as ever. Of course, many things have changed since the 1860s. Dolphinariums, oceanariums and marine parks have been invented, training methods have been developed and blockbuster movies like "Flipper", "Free Willy" and "The Cove" have been pivotal in the public perception of these animals. The public interest in captive cetaceans has risen and fallen like the sea tides from which they originate, but the issues being debated have been the same: the source of the animals, their welfare in captivity and the value of the educational message provided by their captivity.

Displaying captive cetaceans is BIG business, but to do it you have to have the animals. Since the 1963 film "Flipper" dramatically increased the popularity of dolphinariums, the demand for marine mammals by parks has been incessant. As the capture of wild cetaceans increased, governments and institutions imposed regulations to protect wild populations, forcing marine parks to look far and wide for additions and replacements.

Capture from the Wild

The first tightening of regulations came from the US in 1972 to control the numbers of dolphins being caught off the coast of Florida. Canada banned the capture of orcas in 1975 and went on to ban the capture of beluga whales in 1992. Live orca captures since 1977 number over 50, mainly from Iceland, but the Icelandic government has denied permits to capture them since 1990. Other countries that have also banned the live capture of cetaceans include Australia, The Philippines, China, Taiwan, Singapore and Thailand.

Captive breeding programmes have helped to reduce the numbers taken from the wild but despite some success they have been insufficient to sustain the current captive population and wild captures still continue. Live exports of dolphins are increasing from the South Pacific, the Caribbean and Cuba. Russia has become the world’s largest supplier of belugas since the Canadian ban, with wild whales being caught every summer and then held in small marine pens in Vladivostok until buyers can be found.

Welfare of Marine Mammals in Captivity

No one can deny that the taking of cetaceans from the wild causes high levels of suffering. Complications during the capture process have been known to kill individuals, while others die in holding pens or during transportation due to high stress and poor handling. Those that survive then have to adapt to a captive lifestyle very far removed from their former life. In the wild, these animals swim hundreds of kilometres a day, they live in social groups called pods and show many complex behaviours associated with dominance, mating, maternal care and hunting. In captivity, all of these natural behaviours are lost or severely limited and such denial leads to stress. This stress is often recognisable by pacing, self-mutilation, ulcers and sores, aggression or depression. Studies have shown that the life expectancy of captive orcas is significantly less than that of wild orcas and this is strong evidence of the high stress of captivity.

The welfare issues associated with marine mammals in captivity have been recognised by a great many people and governments. Australia banned the live display of cetaceans on welfare grounds in 1985 after a 117-page report was commissioned which cited: “painful and stressful capture techniques, the high mortality rate of captive cetacea, and a captive environment which was not able to provide for the cetacean's social or biological needs". Similar legislation has followed in the United Kingdom, Hungary, Costa Rica, Panama, Brazil, Nicaragua and some US states (Hawaii and North Carolina). Italy has banned swim-with-dolphins programmes, and the Netherlands have capped their public display licenses at two.

However, there is still a long way to go as highlighted by the recent EU Zoo Inquiry 2011 by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS). The inquiry reported that all of the 286 cetaceans held in 34 facilities across the EU were being denied the freedom to behave naturally and were prone to conditions related to high stress and poor nutrition.

The Value of the Educational Message

Many marine parks argue that they provide an educational service that helps in the long-term conservation and protection of cetacean species, but surveys undertaken to measure this have very mixed results. For example, in a survey at Sea World Australia in 2001, researchers found that 64 per cent of visitors listed the number one reason for their visit was to have fun and be entertained, 58 per cent of visitors listed a chance to see wildlife they didn’t usually see and only 37 per cent listed an opportunity to learn about wildlife as one of their reasons for visiting the aquarium. A study commissioned in 2007 by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums of their accredited zoos around the US showed similarly unsatisfactory results with no statistically significant change in overall knowledge of visitors.

Both of these surveys concerned facilities that maintained the highest of standards and yet there are clearly doubts about the effect of the educational message. It is therefore very worrying to consider how ineffective the education may be at the majority of marine parks that do not uphold strict standards of display. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) EU Zoo Inquiry 2011 found that an average of only 12.3 per cent of the commentaries at the shows included any information about the animals on display that could be considered to be educational and only 31 per cent had any signs about the animals on display.